'The sense of sight' by Annie Louisa SwynnertonThe Rise of Women Artists

Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street
23rd October 2009 - 14th March 2010

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

This small exhibition of drawings, paintings, ceramics and sculptures has attracted a lot of positive comments judging by the display of cards left by visitors. I’m afraid I did not share this response. I felt discouraged by the general feeling of emotional flatness.

A swift appraisal led me back to Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Small Winged Figure’ (1961) whose uncertain fragility, stunted wings and earth-bound feet resonated with the sense of restraint I found there. Perhaps this was to be expected given the immense problems creative women have always had in overcoming social and gender-based prejudice. Some nineteenth century female artists had to seek training in Rome and Paris, so oppressive was the London scene.

I have to confess to a dislike of most Victorian art whatever the gender of the artist. I find the ghoulish or sentimental attachment to neo-Gothicism with its tendency to categorise women into nymphs, beatified mothers or doomed, love-lorn maidens irritating. ‘Elaine’ (1870) is a case in point. Like her male counterparts, Mrs Sophie Anderson has taken a theme from literature, in this case Tennyson and painted poor Elaine who fretted away for the love of Lancelot. There she is in her death pallor with heavy auburn hair and a white lily etc. and it’s perfectly OK as a narrative painting. But the fact that this work, purchased in 1871 is one of the first acquisitions for the Walker is just as interesting. The biographical details of these women often are (one was an official war artist who attended the Nuremberg Trials).

Take Roza Bonheur, represented here by two small, forgettable works: ‘Le Retour du Moulin’ (1878), which shows a horse and a donkey; and a sculpture, ‘Recumbent Ewe’ (1848), which shows a…recumbent ewe. Yet she is famous for her five metre wide picture ‘The Horse Fair’ which toured Europe and the US several times selling thousands of printed reproductions.

I am annoyed at the limitations in subject matter found in work by women encouraged to concentrate on animals, children, flowers, birds and useful or uplifting objects. With some of the paintings from the period you find yourself on the edges of charming sentimentality: woodland worlds, rural idylls, fairy types, mermaids, Kate Greenaway’s idealised children. Marianne Stokes avoids mawkishness in her painting of a child cradling a calf. ‘Condamnee a Mort’ (1884) gets away with it but only because the child is so sturdily ‘real’. Far stronger and more relevant to the modern viewer is ‘Fantine’ (1886) by Margaret Bernardine Hall. Again based on literature - this time Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ - Hall’s painting is an arresting portrait of a woman’s protective certainty concerning her child.

But what could be more annoying than Annie Swynnerton’s ‘The Sense of Sight’ (1895) which is featured on the advertising to this exhibition? I couldn’t get beyond the feeling that the angel-wings are badly and grubbily painted as is the background.

Back to the inadequate means of flight.

So what was it that women artists rose to? One of the most striking of the later exhibits is Sheila Fell’s ‘Homes Near Number Five Pit’ (1957). No rural idyll here! Her work addresses the decline of the Cumbrian mining industry and was admired by Lowry. The sombre colours and sense of stormy darkness imbue the painting with an expressionist energy.

Two small pieces that have some clout are: ‘The Challenge’ (1934) by Agnes Miller Parker - a wood engraving on paper in which a cat fills the space with its snarl of aggression; and ‘Two Men and Two Women’ (1924) by Paule Vezelay - a linocut in which the women have as much presence as the men, if not more since their faces are frontal whilst the male faces are profiled.

Like Antony Gormley, modern women have used their own bodies as subject. Helen Chadwick (1953 - 1996) incorporated landscape, digitally combined images of her own cells and elements of chance - paint thrown to the waves and caught back on canvas. Judith Cowen (b. 1954) displays a plaster cast of her own mouth and protruding tongue. Blood red and with a drooping black cloth ‘moustache’ she has given the object fetishist power. Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911) has drawn her own ear twelve times on a piece of cloth from her wedding trousseau. Each ear has a hole - neatly stitched like a buttonhole - where the natural aperture should be. I didn’t know what to make of that but I did find it disturbing in a way that the series of drawings by Lisa Milroy (b. 1959) is not. ‘Handles’ (1989) - a series of sixteen drawings - creates a work of elegance through increasing the size of the original artifacts and producing a sense of order and spaciousness.

More enigmatic is Hermione Wiltshire’s ‘Introduce’ (1993). A photograph with a round frame and a protruding eye-shaped viewing glass invites the viewer to enter the world of the obscure photograph. It says something about our voyeuristic impulse and also about our desire to interpret what we see.

Kate Blacker’s ‘Geisha’ (1981) shows an intelligent and witty use of found material though the message is serious. The comment is on female identity and the way in which the role becomes the person and the person is only the role. The corrugated metal becomes both the Geisha and her fan and if we could see the face concealed by the fan we would only see the white make-up that masks the face in this most controlled of socio-sexual encounters.

But the impact of Paula Rego’s (b. 1935) etching of angry determination in the woman waiting for a back-street abortion, with its cruel setting of makeshift arrangements: canvas chairs and an ominous bucket, the etched lines framing her crotch, is not matched by anything else in the exhibition.

What does emerge in looking at the work in chronological order is the vast distance women artists have covered from the days when a piece of marble was the opportunity to sculpt the noble head of an admired man to the time when Barbara Hepworth produced beautiful, abstract shapes such as Two Spheres in Orbit (1973) from the same material. From keeping a country diary to throwing open your bed and its seedy hinterland is a long, long journey (many comments mentioned omissions such as our Tracy, by the way).

But it was a bit discouraging to find Linda McCartney back with the horses and kids.

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